The sight of thousands of cheering supporters at an election rally in Serangoon Stadium in 2015 remains etched in Mr Benjamin Lim’s mind. Since then, the 30-year-old has looked forward to attending another rally at the next election.
But this was not to be, as mass rallies have been disallowed due to safe distancing measures amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
Mr Lim, who lives in Aljunied GRC, now tunes in to online rallies and videos on Facebook from both the People’s Action Party (PAP) and the Workers’ Party (WP) daily.
While bemoaning the loss of the heady atmosphere of physical rallies, he said online campaigning has its merits too.
He is not alone. Voters whom The Sunday Times spoke to lauded the convenience of electronic campaigning, which allows them to get information easily and at their convenience. That said, they agreed that ground engagements are irreplaceable, as are the sights and sounds of rallies.
Political parties have been producing a variety of online content as part of their election campaigning, from talk shows to online graphics, even as they carry out conventional walkabouts and house visits.
Virtual campaigning makes candidates more focused on what they want to say, said Mr Lim, who works in the media industry. This, he added, allows voters like him to zoom in on issues relevant to them.
“Both the PAP and WP have shows in an episodic format, which is great. I’m not getting bombarded by the facts and figures,” said Mr Lim, referring to the PAP’s Straight Talk talk show series and the WP’s Hammer Show – an online talk show that delves into issues such as the challenges faced by young people.
Mr Amex Chew, a 56-year-old who works in sales and lives in Holland-Bukit Timah GRC , said he enjoys the convenience of getting information from the political parties at any time that he wishes.
Online talk shows also allow older voters like hawker Richard Ng, 65, to get a quick summary of the hustings, which he said allows him to participate in conversations with his peers. “We can also rewatch rallies that we have missed,” he said.
Experts said the ease of accessing messages from parties allows more people to become politically engaged.
Dr Mustafa Izzuddin, a senior international affairs analyst at management consultancy Solaris Strategies Singapore, attributes this to the nature of social media, which encourages people to share images, videos and information.
“Those who normally would be apathetic about politics would be excited – social media has that effect,” he said.
Nanyang Technological University Adjunct Professor Hong Hai, a PAP MP from 1988 to 1991, said live debates could be a viable replacement for physical rallies, if they were held more often.
“(They) have some appeal because of the drama of cut and thrust, and are good theatre,” he said.
Last Wednesday, Mediacorp aired two live debates – one in English and one in Mandarin.
However, some observers are concerned netizens will tune in only to online content that aligns with their biases.
Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) senior research fellow Carol Soon said this could create an “online echo chamber”.
“The comments made during parties’ live sessions suggest the strong presence of supporters, which means that parties may be preaching to the converted,” she said.
Compared with physical rallies, which feature colourful speeches interspersed with catchphrases in dialect or Singlish, voters like Mr Ng also find it can be more difficult to stay interested in online rallies.
Commenting on the PAP’s and WP’s rallies, Mr Ng said: “They are all too serious – if you speak too seriously, too professionally, it feels like they are talking to the higher-income people only,” he said.
Those who are less tech-savvy, like Sembawang GRC resident Chan Heng Lian, 70, a retiree who used to work in a factory, do not know about the online rallies.
He is also unaware of the televised constituency political broadcasts which have been introduced for the first time this year in place of physical rallies.
Housewife Rokiah Ahmad, 72, has watched some of the constituency and party political broadcasts. But the West Coast GRC resident said she is unable to understand what is going on, as most candidates speak in English.
The social media landscape is also an uneven playing field for parties, said observers.
Bigger parties with more resources, such as the PAP, the WP and the SDP, are able to use digital platforms more effectively than smaller ones, Dr Mustafa said.
The first episode of the WP’s Hammer Show, for instance, drew more than 120,000 views by midnight, noted Dr Soon.
“The same events done in an offline setting are unlikely to attract such large crowds,” she said, noting that such online videos can continue to attract viewers even after they have been aired.
In comparison, smaller political parties do not have the same reach online. Voters interviewed by ST said they have not watched rallies by smaller and newer parties.
Prof Hong said such online outreach sessions are followed mainly by the better-educated.
“They may be effective in swinging the decisions of the undecided voters,” he added.
Still, it would be simplistic to say that high viewership or virality will translate to votes, said Dr Soon, citing an IPS survey on the 2015 General Election, which found that the top reason influencing how people voted was the quality of parties and candidates.
At the end of the day, online outreach can serve only as a complement rather than a replacement for work that is done on the ground, such as house visits, said Dr Mustafa.
This is particularly so for older residents who may not use the Internet and hence may miss online campaigning events, he noted.
But while this Covid-19 election has led to new ways of campaigning online, voters like Mr Lim hope traditional campaign staples like physical rallies will make a return at the next election as well.
He said: “The online rallies are more accessible and it’s easier to get information, but I’ll also like to attend a physical rally to feel the energy of the candidates and the sense of community.”
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